| Dinner at Canlis
mind the million-dollar view of Lake Union and the Seattle skyline,
or the delectable smells wafting from the kitchen, this celebrated
restaurant has 54 years of stories to tell.
LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT some of our guests tonight,” says
Chris Canlis, owner of Canlis, the legendary Seattle restaurant.
He’s speaking to his staff on a booked-solid winter evening.
It’s only an hour before opening, but instead of rushing, Chris
gathers his employees for a moment of pause. Welcome to the inner
workings of one of the nation’s finest dining establishments.
generations of Seattle residents, Canlis is arguably the reigning “big-night-out” restaurant. It’s a dressy place where dinner for two can cost
more than two big bills. However, when the owners greet you by name
and a palate teaser like chilled melon soup is delivered to your
table — compliments of the chef — you begin to understand: There’s
no place like Canlis.
“This is when we develop our values as a staff
and build community with one another,” says Chris, a longtime Fellow
of Seattle Pacific University. “We call this meeting ‘inspiration.’” You
could also call it story time.
The staff, some of whom have worked
at Canlis for 10, 15 and 20 years or more, are gathered around the
room. A few sit on window ledges, and others pull chairs close to
a lit fireplace. They look more like a large extended family than
the servers, chefs and sommeliers of a prestigious restaurant, but
that’s exactly how Chris and his wife, Alice Canlis, prefer to run
things — as a family.
Chris looks down at tonight’s guest list and
grins. “Ah, this is one of my favorite customers,” he says. “But
the relationship actually began after we made a mistake. A number
of years ago we forgot to give him the cake he ordered, so I took
it over to his house myself.” As a result, says Chris, the customer
has been a longtime patron.
“Now, I don’t recognize the name of this
guest,” he says, looking genuinely puzzled. “But the database says
she’s been dining here for 45 years. Whoever has this table, will
you please find out her story?”
More than anything else, it’s this
sense of story that lingers at Canlis. After all, the restaurant
is more than 50 years old, and in restaurant terms, that’s ancient.
Canlis has been named one of Gourmet magazine’s “50 best American
restaurants” and, says Alice, “Saveur magazine called us ‘the youngest
50-year-old restaurant in America.’ We loved that.”
If the restaurant’s
walls could talk, they would tell stories of visits from famous guests,
such as the Premier of China, the King of Tonga and a long list of
celebrities. Of course, there would be the funny, even awkward, stories
too — a given in the restaurant world. Who could forget the night
that a well-known sports personality threw his wife’s fur coat into
the fireplace, or the woman who refused a marriage proposal in front
of an entire dining room?
The restaurant’s own story began in 1950
when it was founded by Chris’ father, Peter Canlis. By the time of
the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, Canlis was wildly popular and had
already been featured in National Geographic.
Chris says his first
memory of the restaurant was in 1954, when NBC’s Today Show was filmed
live from Canlis, but he says he never aspired to be a restaurant
owner. After meeting Alice while working as a naval flight instructor
in Pensacola, Florida, he earned an M.B.A. from Stanford University
and worked at Wells Fargo Bank. When his father died in 1977, Chris
and Alice accepted a new calling and assumed ownership of Canlis.
Says Alice, “I think God really went out of his way to bring us here.”
the biggest advantage of being one of Seattle’s longest-running restaurants
is the refinement of its cuisine — and, oh the cuisine! On this particular
night, Canlis co-chef Aaron Wright is working on a new seasonal menu. “I
love to find the art in food,” says Wright. “We push for the unique
and the distinctive.”
He brings out a pewter tray where his newest
masterpieces sit atop a bed of rock salt and multicolored peppercorns.
It hardly feels appropriate to ruin such a work of art with a knife
and fork, but who could resist the Alaska Weathervane Scallops with
citrus butter or the Teriyaki Tenderloin with ginger and garlic?
With the restaurant situated less than a mile from Seattle Pacific,
the Canlises consider SPU a neighbor. In fact, Chris plans to enroll
in a business ethics class at the University next quarter, as a student
and as a guest lecturer and mentor who can provide real-world examples.
You might spot him in the Student Union Building, too. Approximately
once a week, he brings his “office” to the SUB. “I work down there,
just to be around the energy of students,” he says.
Some of this
work includes planning Canlis’ charitable giving, about which the
couple is passionate. They recently raised $50,000 for charity at
the restaurant’s 50th anniversary party and more than half a million
dollars at their 1999 New Year’s gala.
The Canlises are supporters
of Seattle Pacific University, too. Both are members of SPU’s Society
of Fellows, through which they hosted an exclusive cooking class
for women Fellows two years ago. They also hire many Seattle Pacific
students and graduates. Says Chris, “We look for character. We have
hired a lot of young people from SPU to work here, and they have
influenced the Canlis culture.”
The lights are dimmed, and the first
guests arrive — an unspoken cue that it’s show time. “Mr. C, will
you help me with my tie?” asks Chris Kattenhorn ’03, Canlis’ director
of marketing. Kattenhorn began working at Canlis while he was a student
at SPU. The elder Chris walks over and expertly adjusts Kattenhorn’s
necktie. “Just like a family,” he says, smiling.
What is the secret
ingredient for Canlis’ success? “There has to be integration between
the values of the owner and the values of the business,” says Chris. “That
includes ethics, business purposes and even personality. You can’t
be one thing at home and something else here.”
“At first,” says Alice, “We
didn’t think that you could have that integrated kind of Christian
life in the restaurant world. But we were so wrong in our thinking.
You can bring Christianity into almost any lifestyle, any workplace.”
that the couple’s son, Mark, has taken a more active role at Canlis,
you might say the restaurant has begun a new chapter — but the story
certainly doesn’t end here. “We want to continue as a place where
past history evolves into future stories,” says Chris. “The Creator
is still creating,” adds Alice. “He’s still creating me, and he’s
still creating you.” And perhaps through the lives of this extraordinary
family, he’s still creating Canlis.
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